Perhaps the best way to approach the 9 Kinds of Silence, the new play by Abhishek Majumdar making its world premiere through PlayCo, is to look at it from a semi-abstract perspective. Sure, Majumdar, who also directed the production, offers some visual and aural signifiers that this two-hander is set in some war-torn country: a flag with red, green, and stars on the stage-right wall; sand everywhere on the floor in Jian Jung’s set design; one character donning a hijab (Jung also designed the costumes). Beyond such details, though, 9 Kinds of Silence is bereft of specifics, seemingly taking place in a metaphysical purgatory—as if the attempts at connection and rehabilitation after trauma that Majumdar depicts could happen anytime, anywhere, and possibly always has been, in different ways, throughout history.
In hindsight, then, Majumdar’s hazy and aphoristic approach to dialogue and characterization makes sense. 9 Kinds of Silence revolves around the attempts of a woman (Hend Ayoub), who works for an unspecified government office, to prepare an apparent war veteran (Joe Joseph) for returning to normal society. The show program refers to the woman as “Mother” and the war vet as “Son,” but they aren’t blood relatives. Instead, the Mother could be said to represent all women who have sent their children into war, while the Son is the nation’s offspring, given the way the Mother refers to him admiringly as a war hero.
More germane to the (minimal) drama is the fact that the Mother does most of the talking, desperately trying to get a response from the sunglasses-clad Son, who speaks barely a word and only reacts when an action or sound triggers dark memories. That contrast between outward talkiness and internalized silence appears to be one of Majumdar’s main points. The Mother rattles off volleys of words that offer little of substance beyond cliches, nationalistic buzzwords, and pained self-justifications, while the Son says little but suggests an ocean of trauma, regret, and confusion. If there is “character development” in this play, it lies in what’s not said aloud.
As intriguing as it is to see this dynamic play out onstage in the moment, that also means 9 Kinds of Silence has a touch of the academic about it. (That feeling is reinforced by the notes featured in the program, which include an excerpt from a New York Times article by music critic Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim referencing John Cage’s famously silence-filled 4’33”.) Majumdar’s play may end up inspiring deep, even philosophical thought, but it won’t leave you emotionally shattered—which, given the environment in which it takes place, some may count as a shortcoming.
Majumdar’s own acutely atmospheric direction does help to elevate its material to a certain degree. If anything, the doom-laden feel that Emma Deane’s lighting design and M. Florian Staab’s original music and sound design conjures up adds another layer to the play: 9 Kinds of Silence offers one of the more affecting depictions of post-traumatic stress disorder I’ve seen, moving precisely because Majumdar keeps that thread as an undertone throughout. Staab’s sound design may well be the real star of this production. Beyond filling the pauses between the two characters with chilling bits of ambiance (wind blowing ominously, dogs barking in the distance), Staab peppers his soundscapes with imaginative touches—the halo-like reverberation around a couple of phone calls the Mother takes is particularly memorable in its surrealistic quality—and the occasional moments when he heightens the sound to indicate the Son’s own traumatic memories have a genuine slam-bang impact.
That’s not to detract from the two central performers. Ayoub suggests a variety of conflicting emotions under the many words she utters. Joseph has the even harder task of creating a sense of a human being while mostly sitting still in a chair. This he does with impressive modulation and restraint, never overdoing even the smallest movements, thereby lending even more of a jolt to the occasional moments when he lashes out in PTSD-ridden anguish. Both actors do a lot to imbue their glorified icons with something resembling inner lives just beyond our grasp.
Majumdar’s play could also be said to be just beyond our grasp: an overreaching work that might have benefited from the playwright focusing and clarifying his obsessions instead of leaving them all out on the stage in an undigested stew. Still, there are certainly worse artistic sins than that of ambition. 9 Kinds of Silence is the kind of messy, frustrating work that still deserves to be seen and pondered over.